A number of frameworks for assessing the risk of terrorist offending have been developed in recent years, and new learning is rapidly emerging from their use. Some are designed for police and intelligence services to detect the risk of a first terrorist offence in the community, and others for correctional staff to assess the risk of re-offending on release. Currently the framework with the strongest evidence based according to the RMA’s RATED publication is the TRAP-18, which covers both these functions with a set of pre-crime warning behaviours and a set of indicators that characterise the ‘violent true believer’.
Terrorist attacks remain very rare, ten times rarer in fact than other forms of violence, though disproportionately impactful. This low base rate rules out actuarial risk assessment, and most approaches for assessing risk and needs conform to structured professional judgement (SPJ). These provide a range of possible risk factors identified from research and practice as relevant to terrorist offending. As they are not measuring a single propensity for terrorism, which research has confirmed does not exist; the factors cannot be summed to provide a measure of risk, but a formulation tells the individual story. Protective factors are sometimes included, though what protects an individual can be specific to them and not captured by a generic list. Professional judgement remains central to the task.
Push, pull and protection
The assessment of terrorist offending revolves around the relevant push, pull and protective factors for each individual. Push factors are the drivers that broadly correspond with grievance, injustice, identity and status issues, and the pull factors are embedded in the ideology that identifies who is to blame for the injustice being experienced, and the rewards that will follow for those who join the struggle. Most are protected by a good-enough life and future goals, and this promise of a new life gains traction with very few. All these factors are dynamic and in constant tension, such that engagement can be followed by disengagement or re-engagement as the balance between them shifts. Periodic re-assessment is therefore necessary to check the current level of risk and protection.
Developing an intent to harm
In most jurisdictions terrorist offences include preliminary behaviours that fall short of attack planning, so it is necessary to make discriminations between those who may only be peripherally engaged, and those who intend to carry out a terrorist attack. Research indicates that those who cross this threshold are characterised by polarised ‘them-and-us’ thinking that de-humanises the out-group, and a belief that the end justifies the means. In this operational space, family and friends become displaced by a new proxy family, preaching replaces dialogue, and humour is lost. Such individuals have switched their identity from victim to perpetrator, and crossed the threshold from engagement to intent. These indicators of stridency are markers for this mind-set, and their softening may equally well be taken as markers for their disengagement.
Not all of those who embark on a terrorist pathway complete it, and many of those who arrive at the same destination do so by different routes. Those with no criminal history have to overcome their inhibitions about carrying out a terrorist offence, which is accomplished over time through conditioning that allows them to believe that their actions are justified in pursuit of a noble cause. Others from a criminal background who seek excitement and live in the moment can make this decision impulsively. They already carry a grievance against society and hold attitudes that justify offending, and can be recruited relatively easily to a terrorist cause that promises them reward, revenge and redemption. A much smaller minority of lone actors have clinical conditions that render them susceptible to radicalisation, and these include Autistic Spectrum Disorder, psychosis, personality disorder and delusional disorder. Where these are accompanied by idiosyncratic beliefs and odd behaviour individuals can be rejected by extremist groups, and in their isolation become increasingly fixated on carrying out a lone attack to avenge their personal grievance.
As both engagement and dis-engagement are the product of a balance of push and pull factors, both dis-engagement and re-engagement are possible when this balance shifts. In prisons those who are more followers than leaders can spontaneously disengage following the combined trauma of dawn arrests, protracted isolation in police custody and detention in conditions of high security. Others with more investment in ideology can remain staunch. The choices for those in prison who do not disengage, and for foreign fighters in a war zone when hostilities cease, are either to pass the responsibility for jihad on to others and withdraw from the front line, or carry out a further attack while wearing a (fake) suicide vest, to ensure that they achieve a martyr’s death. Research and experience show that both of these choices have been made; with very few choosing martyrdom and most choosing to withdraw from the frontline.
So, progress has been made through the discipline of structured risk assessment, from studies applying frameworks retrospectively to open source case studies, and large meta-analytic studies comparing violent and non-violent terrorist offenders. Hopefully, this will lead in time to more frameworks achieving validation as the evidence base grows.